Savory Southern Accent
From an on-site brewery to dazzling smoked dishes, Cask & Larder beckons diners to make themselves at home.
Its location on the very hazardous triangle of Fairbanks, North Orange and South Pennsylvania avenues in Winter Park is as iconic for longevity, housing restaurants and bars since 1929, as its tenants. Boathouse, Drakes, Coyote Grill, O’Boys Bar-B-Q, and most famously Harper’s (a couple of times) and Le Cordon Bleu have all been landmarks, or at least topics of discussion.
Now, dressed in pale blue walls and Southern country finery, Cask & Larder seems somehow smaller than I remember the space, and that’s fine. The designers brought in a movie theater engineer to abate echoes from the space, so now a packed room of happy diners sounds like people talking instead of a convention hall. There’s a comfortable and casual feel to the room, and ample opportunity to watch items entering and leaving the wood-fired oven, glass-enclosed kitchen and gleaming brewery. Yes, the “cask” in C&L refers to the on-site beer-making facilities, under the talented purview of brewmeister Ron Raike, who concocts ales and lagers using coriander, local citrus, fruit and even ham as flavors.
James Petrakis told me he wanted to create “a brew pub that wasn’t a brew pub,” where basic cooking and Southern hospitality is emphasized. While the Ravenous Pig is evolving toward more Mediterranean cuisine, C&L highlights Petrakis’ Southern roots and a modern smokehouse concept (the industrial smoker left behind by O’Boys was a fortuitous legacy).
The idea of a scratch kitchen, where everything is made in–house, runs high at C&L, as does the idea of family. Most of the “new” staff are former Petrakis employees. Rhys Gawlak, who developed the charcuterie service at Ravenous Pig, is C&L chef de cuisine, smoking expert and developer of new dishes like the awesome duck ham (more later), and Jason Campbell, former sous chef at “The Pig,” oversees general operations. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was in the back smelting glass for the beer bottles. This is one serious kitchen, turning out some playful and spirited food.
The menu changes seasonally, weekly, daily, hourly—depends on what’s available and what the chef feels like making—so walk in with an open mind.
If Southern means huge portions, the smoked chicken ($19) whistles “Dixie” on its way to the table. Slow cooked, slathered in mayo-based Alabama white sauce, served with ham-studded potato salad; it’s a simple dish prepared exceedingly well.
Not so familiar is crab fingers ($15). Quite literally the smaller finger of a Florida blue crab claw, this Louisiana favorite is cooked in brown butter and disappears very quickly. The corn relish accompaniment is perked up with pickled fennel slices and fried fennel leaves, and cuts through the fattiness of the crab.
You’d expect a chef named Petrakis, whose grandfather owned Greek diners, to know what to do with seafood. The cedar plank octopus ($19) is perfectly grilled, tender but not mushy, exactingly cooked with a charred flavor that brings out the sweetness of the meat. The bed of baked beans was too chewy, but I really didn’t mind.
I’m intrigued by relishes and garnishes, little unexpected tastes that bring new dimension to a plate, and C&L excels here under the hand of pickling wiz Andrew Claytor, ex-Pig pastry chef. Hazelnut relish, pickled watermelon, preserved lemon, even a “ham jam” condiment made from dark and smoky ham ends, all add fascinating highlights to already interesting tastes. A dish of farro risotto ($9) mixed thinly sliced peaches and tart pickled hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with the seasoned grains, and was rich enough to be a main course.
And then there’s the duck ham ($24). Smoking becomes an art beyond ribs and chicken, imparting flavor and texture to all manner of food. The “ham” is sliced breast of duck, with that pink smoke aura you usually find in good barbecue pork; salty, smoky, tender but with resistance and body, with a taste a little like rich country ham and a real essence of duck meat, practically a duck concentrate. The generous portion, served on beautifully creamy Bradley’s grits from Tallahassee and braised collards, is a delightful combination that surprises and comforts at the same time.
Petrakis champions a simple philosophy: “You’re coming to our house.” And Cask & Larder, in its offerings and presentation, shows that he truly means it.
BEST OF ALL WORLDS
Epcot’s International Food and Wine Festival may not be the largest foodie fest in the country, but it’s the longest, running this year from Sept. 27 to Nov. 11.
While even the most casual festival-goers are familiar with the 32 World Showcase kiosks that present tasty bites from countries as disparate as Brazil (seared scallops with hearts of palm, pictured below) and Scotland (new this year, offering famed Scottish salmon and vegetarian haggis), seasoned attendees plan ahead for the themed dinners. They include:
Irish chef Kevin Dundon, who threw a great solstice dinner in June, returns to Raglan Road Irish Pub on Oct. 3 to host 65 guests ($155).
The chefs at Cat Cora’s Kouzzina create a dinner for 24 lucky diners on Oct. 18 and Nov. 1 ($160).
A special Burns Night Supper highlights the often underrated cuisine of Scotland at the Epcot World ShowPlace on Oct. 24 for 100 guests ($125).
For more casual activities, the recently revamped Monsieur Paul restaurant at the France Pavilion will feature French regional lunches on Fridays and Sundays with wine pairings for $99 per person. And Tutto Gusto at the Italy Pavilion offers luncheons on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday for $75. For details, go to disneyworld.disney.go.com